Reflection of Chaplain Rusty Harding, Providence Tarzana Medical Center
The call comes at 5:04 a.m. It’s the first time I’ve been paged in the night. I get up and call the operator. She tells me the patient in Room 210 is dying and the family has asked for a chaplain. I shower, dress and leave. Driving in the darkness and listening to Thelonious Monk on the radio, I think about the intersection of worlds, Rusty, just-out-of-bed and listening-to-jazz-as-he-drives, meeting a family up-all-night watching a loved- one die. I arrive, grab my Book of Common Prayer from the office and walk up to the patient’s room. On the way I look at the day’s census and see that the patient is Jewish. I stop by the Nurses’ Station and then go to the room.
It turns out I’d met the family in the afternoon. I brought them Shabbat candles just before I left to go home. When I did, I had no idea the patient was so close to death. The man now looks white-white and waxen. If he’s breathing at all, I can’t tell it. The man’s wife is there and his two daughters. They thank me again for bringing the candles. His wife initiates an awkward negotiation to see how we can cross the interfaith divide. She struggles to find a way to tell me that they would like me to pray a prayer that doesn’t invoke Jesus. She says they’ve done their crying, they’ve done their remembering and all they want now is for someone to pray a prayer that will help her husband, Richard, to lay it down and know he can leave in peace. She begins to pat my arm as if to comfort me, to ready me for the task of praying outside my tradition. I try to assure her that what she’s asking is the very thing I would want to do, the thing that should be done.
Relieved, she turns from the problem of will-I, can-I pray to what prayer to pray. The daughters look on. Their mother’s eyes fall on the card-with-a-blessing the Spiritual Care Department distributes to introduce their work. She says, “I know. Maybe you could pray this prayer,” and I say that sounds good. We gather around the bed. We lay our hands on the patient and on each other. I read the five line blessing off the card. As I walked over, after seeing the patient was Jewish, I’d hurriedly found a prayer in the prayer book I thought would be adaptable.
Now I open my prayer book and, omitting the references to Jesus, I tack that prayer on to the end of the blessing on the card. There are a few last words together and a warm exchange of thanks. Both mother and daughters repeat that they’ve already done much of the work of facing what’s coming. All they really needed, they say, was for someone to say a prayer to help their husband and father go. They said they’d let us know if they needed anything further. For now, they were prepared to simply wait. I thanked them for inviting me to share this moment with them and I left.
I left the hospital and went to have a cup of tea. While I drank my tea, I read the novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog. In it, I read “But above all it is crazy how people think that though they understand nature they can live without it … Living, eating, reproducing, fulfilling the task for which we were born, and dying: it has no meaning, true, but that’s the way things are. People are so arrogant, thinking they can coerce nature, escape their destiny of little biological things … and yet they remain blind to the cruelty or violence of their own way of living, loving, reproducing and making war on their fellow human beings … Personally I think there is only one thing to do: find the task we have been placed on this earth to do, and accomplish it as best we can, with all our strength, without making things complicated or thinking there’s anything divine about our animal nature. This is the only way we will ever feel that we have been doing something constructive when death comes to get us.”
I left the tea shop and drove home in the dawn light, listening now to a cello quartet. The passage from the novel, merged with the moments with the family at the bedside of the dying man and I felt a sense of rightness in what we’d done. I felt a strange, strong sense of peace and I was filled with questions. Questions, yes, and a conviction that we had done what God meant for us to do together. That morning and this morning I also knew a deep gratitude to be part of a community dedicated to caring for others, to doing what we’re placed on earth to do, and working, as best we can, day after day to accomplish that task.
Now, I pray that we might share that blessing too:
May the light of God surround you.
May the love of God enfold you.
May the power of God protect you.
And may the presence of God watch over you always.